Many people require the use of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to help with the diagnosis or tracking of a medical condition at some point in their lives. For some, this common test provokes significant fear and apprehension. Anxiety about possible outcomes, not knowing what to expect and the loud noises of the MRI machine can increase this distress. Another concern for people undergoing MRI testing is claustrophobia, or the fear associated with being in a small or enclosed space. If you experience claustrophobia, you are not alone. An estimated 7–10% of the population lives with this condition.

MRI claustrophobia can be detrimental to one’s health if the fear of the procedure prevents someone from receiving an MRI, particularly if there is a pressing medical problem needs to be evaluated or addressed.

Why Medical Procedures Trigger Claustrophobia

Medical procedures such as MRIs, PET scans and CT scans are frequent sources of claustrophobia. These types of tests enclose individuals in small quarters to obtain imaging for diagnostic and treatment purposes. Claustrophobia during MRI procedures is particularly common because traditional MRI machines have had a flat front with a small, tunnel-like entrance. More modern MRI machines have a much different appearance and shorter bore, which has been shown to significantly reduce anxiety and claustrophobia episodes during testing.  

MRI, CT and PET scans can cause claustrophobia because being in such a confined space can create feelings of limited control, isolation from others and major restriction of movement. Claustrophobia is an anxiety-based disorder, so situations that restrict movement or confine a person to a small space provoke high levels of distress.

Tips on Minimizing Fear During Scans

Managing claustrophobia during scans can be approached in a variety of ways. Knowing what signs and symptoms to look for can help you or a loved one recognize the onset of claustrophobia sooner rather than later.

Some common claustrophobia symptoms often include:

  • Excessive fear
  • Sweating or chills
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Nausea
  • Dry mouth
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate

Fortunately, techniques can be used to reduce these physiological and psychological side effects. Putting some of these ideas into action can help you or a loved one feel more in control and reduce anxiety.

Below are some techniques that have been shown to be effective in reducing some of the anxiety associated with claustrophobia.

  • Talk to your doctor beforehand: Fear about scans and claustrophobia are relatively common. By making your doctor aware of your apprehension early on, you can work together to create a plan to reduce your distress and improve the experience.
  • Listen to music: It’s astounding how much of a difference the use of music can make to reduce stress in an anxiety-provoking situation. Choose music that will allow your mind and body to relax.
  • Focus on breathing: Focused attention on deep, slow breathing can create a physiological and psychological response that relaxes the body and mind. Using mindful meditation skills as part of your MRI treatment can also be a helpful strategy.
  • Cover your eyes: It may seem like this is an overly simplistic suggestion, but sometimes such a simple act can make a huge difference when it comes to managing anxiety. Consider picturing some guided imagery. Conjure a peaceful scene and then imagine the details in your mind’s eye. You might be surprised how relaxing this exercise can be.
  • Bring a friend for support: Inviting a friend to support you during an MRI or any difficult procedure can be a soothing and healthy distraction from the task at hand. If you are reluctant to ask, remember that you may be asked to reciprocate some day and your friend would probably be glad to help. 
  • Count: The use of counting as a distraction technique is simple, easy and practical. Focusing on the numbers will shift the focus away from the procedure. If you want even more complex distraction, work on some math problems in your head!
  • Ask for sedation: Many mild medications can be taken before procedures. Short-acting drugs for claustrophobia or brief sedation may be an option to discuss with your doctor if your claustrophobia is severe.
  • Discuss alternatives: Today there are more treatment options available than there have ever been in the past. Ask your doctor about the possibility of undergoing an open MRI.  Many medical facilities are accommodating to people with claustrophobia because it prevents people from foregoing the test altogether.

Regardless of what claustrophobia management techniques you use, be sure to share your thoughts and feelings with your medical provider and technician prior to having your MRI done. Claustrophobia is relatively common, particularly with imaging-testing such as MRI, CT and PET scans that involve enclosed spaces. Simple management techniques can help make the experience less stressful.